Care and Feeding

Presents for Everyone!

My in-laws insist on giving my spoiled niece a gift too at everyone else’s celebrations. What should I do?

A child blowing out candles on a cupcake with a child in the background receiving a present from an older relative.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding, 

My daughter is 4 and my niece is almost 6; they’re the only grandchildren on my husband’s side. At my daughter’s birthday party, my sister-in-law brought two identical presents. She informed me that one was for my daughter and one was for my niece, so my niece wouldn’t get jealous and misbehave.

For background: My niece is extremely spoiled and goes into full-on tantrum if she doesn’t get her way. She eventually does get her way—when screaming and crying turn into destruction of property or physical aggression on one of her parents.

My husband mentioned to his brother that none of the other kids were getting presents (outside of party favors), so that wasn’t going to fly; my brother-in-law removed the gift. After my daughter opened her presents, my sister-in-law and mother-in-law pulled her away from the party to watch her cousin open her identical gift. I shrugged it off as a one-time annoyance.

But I recently had a baby shower for my second child. My mother-in-law brought two gifts: one for my daughter and one for my niece. She pointed out that even though there were a lot of presents on the table for the new baby and his big sister, she and Mommy made sure she had a special present too.

My aunt, who was hosting the shower, removed these gifts, because the party wasn’t for my niece but me and my children. Once again, as soon as my daughter and I opened our presents, my in-laws swept my daughter into another room to watch her cousin open a gift almost identical to the big sister present she received (a shirt that said “Best Cousin” instead of “Best Sister”).

My in-laws insist this is the only way to keep their daughter from acting out at parties where she is not the center of attention—apparently my mother-in-law was the one who gave them the idea. Is this a normal thing for 5-year-olds? Am I being selfish for wanting my children to be the center of attention at their own celebrations? How do we address this? I’m worried my own children will begin to believe that celebrations for cousins or friends will mean a present for them, but I have a big family (my kids are two of 10 cousins), and that is just not affordable.

—It’s Not Your Party

Dear INYP,

To answer one of the many questions here: No, I don’t think this is normal.

Obviously, we’re talking about young children, an irrational bunch. A parent or grandparent can’t be blamed for wanting to avoid hurt feelings or doing what they can to avoid a tantrum. Your own baby shower offers a convenient example; your little girl, big sister to be, received a present, and that’s not uncommon and not so awful.

But it’s one thing to make sure a big sibling to be feels loved and special during a baby shower, and another thing altogether to teach your kid that any gift-giving occasion will also include a gift for them. This is precisely the lesson your in-laws are teaching your niece. It’s no wonder she’s spoiled.

How your in-laws raise their kid is up to them. But you’re not being selfish for wanting your daughter’s birthday party to be a celebration of your daughter. If you’re hosting the party, I think you’re within your rights to be clear with your in-laws (or maybe ask your husband to tackle this one since it’s his brother’s family): “We’ll provide goody bags. If you want to give X a sympathy gift, please do it at home before you attend. It’s Y’s party, and she won’t be spending any of her celebration watching her cousin open a gift.”

As far as your own children go, I wouldn’t worry too much about them getting the idea that every celebration will entail a present for them. You’re not raising them with that expectation. And you can be clear and firm with them if they bring it up: “No, it’s B’s birthday, so she gets a present, not you.”

Your daughter might quibble with this, initially; after all, her cousin gets a gift any time anyone does. But however irrational kids are, they’re not idiots. Before long your daughter—indeed all your niece’s peers—will be old enough to understand that she’s spoiled, or someone who’s just not that fun at a party. You could caution your in-laws about this, or you could just let it be their problem.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My child is going into her last year of preschool before kindergarten. She’s in a private preschool, mixed-age class, child-led, play-based, half-day program that deeply shares my values of diversity, inclusion, and community interaction. It’s been great, and I’m looking forward to another year. After that, kindergarten.

The local public school is down the street. I am a huge proponent of public schools and the community and social bonds you can find in them—as long as the academics are available. I believe that public school systems can often have better resources for a more diverse set of kids and having that available as well as being around more diversity is only good.

And then I read our future school’s handbook. I hate it.

It has dress code policies that are sexualized and discriminatory—explaining that in order not to distract from the learning environment, spaghetti strap and strapless tops are banned. It has a lengthy section on lunch debt, complete with a guilt trip that unpaid lunch debt comes out of the school’s operating budget and deprives students of things like field trips and music.

There’s an entire process around requesting an opportunity to observe the classroom, which I don’t like. She’s my kid, so telling me I can’t have access to her does not make me feel like I should put her in this school’s care. I’m ultimately responsible for her safety, growth, and development in ways that school will never be.

Is there a way to talk to someone (at a school I don’t have a child attending yet) about these policies? I can’t see myself signing up to agree to abide by a bunch of this. If it were a professional contract, I’d redline it and give it back and there’d be a negotiation, but I don’t think schools are set up for that.

I’m sure no one loves the parent that shows up with a redlined copy of the handbook and the research on how these policies disadvantage various populations or have lost court battles when challenged. Is there a way to ask “You can’t be serious?” about the policies?

—Mother Knows Best

Dear MKB,

I love your enthusiasm for the public school system. I hope that someday we live in a country where the schools are as robustly funded as the Department of Defense. For now, well, here we are.

I don’t disagree with you about any of this: Dress codes shouldn’t penalize girls, kids should be fed for free, and teachers should aim for classrooms that are open environments in which parents are (within reason) welcome.

But a school doesn’t serve only your kid, but all kids. It’s possible that hundreds of parents support the policies you find abhorrent. It’s also possible there are good reasons for some of them—keeping visitors out of classrooms because of gun control protocols (horrifying but possible) or custody and other legal issues. There’s no good reason to shame kids over school lunch debt, but there might be reasons all the same.

Again, I share your sense that all kids would benefit from the changes you propose to these policies. But you cannot effect that change by simply demanding it, especially as a prospective parent rather than an active member of the PTA or the local government. If you believe public school is a social good, enroll your daughter, roll up your sleeves, and get involved. Once you’re more steeped in the school community, you’ll probably better understand the rationale (or lack thereof) behind these rules. Then you can set about to make some positive change.

• If you missed Wednesday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My wonderful, smart, funny, sweet 13-year-old son has Tourette’s syndrome. He was diagnosed at 10 but had shown signs before that (inability to stop whistling, hand licking, hard blinking). He is not physically harmed by it at all, his friends either don’t notice or don’t care, and he seems to keep a lid on it at school.

At home, it’s completely different. While his tics tend to wax and wane in terms of severity and type, there are times when he engages in vocal tics up to 10 times a minute (a loud snort, a yodel) for hours on end. This can go on for weeks before it subsides. Tourette’s is uncommon, and there are very few treatment options (medication doesn’t seem to help, what little research I’ve done indicates). One specialist we saw essentially said it was more my problem than his, since it doesn’t bother him.

He honestly cannot control it, and acknowledging it’s happening just makes him feel terrible and makes him tic more. But there are times I am driven insane by it. I have been to a behaviorist to try to find better ways to cope than leaving the room or putting in earplugs, to no avail. (He knows that I wear headphones because of it, sometimes.) I am so scared that my relationship with him will be destroyed by my inability to accept or handle his Tourette’s—I find reasons to leave the house (“Let me mow the lawn!” “I’ll walk the dog again!”), and sometimes I dread going home from work. Help! I love him so much, but it’s so hard for me to be around him when his tics are revved up! 

—Never Saw This Coming

Dear NSTC,

There is nothing wrong with being driven insane by your son’s tics. You obviously understand he’s unable to control them. It’s clear you adore him and are simply feeling guilty about your own, very human response. Please go easier on yourself. You are a parent, but you are also a person.

I wonder if your son is the sort of 13-year old mature enough to handle a real adult conversation about this matter. You can remind him that of course you love him (he already knows this) but sometimes you find you need a break from his tics. And that’s why you might wear your headphones around the house, or invest in better earplugs, or need to take a walk, or have some time alone in your room.

If you think he’s not mature enough to understand that your irritation is not with him but his syndrome, you can still seek solutions. Maybe your son’s doctor could point you to a group that might offer support or real tactical advice. Maybe in addition to a doctor, he (or you) should work with a therapist to help you both manage his condition. Either way, I imagine that regular breaks and other simple strategies to help you cope are probably healthy for you and your relationship with your son. Good luck!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a mother of a 3-year-old son and an infant. We recently moved into a nice neighborhood after having a nightmare of a neighbor situation at our old home. We quickly made friends with the young couple next door. Our son adores their 2-year-old. He wants to play with him every chance he gets and talks about him nonstop.

My husband and I were delighted that our neighbors began to invite us to hang out with their friend group. We love having friends with young kids, and friends who are at the same stage in life, especially who live right next door. We have helped each other—watering plants, sending over dinner, watching each other’s homes when we leave for vacations, etc.

The problem started this past weekend. They invited us over for a grill out with another couple. Everything was going well until my son and theirs were jumping around on an ottoman together. My son pushed him off on purpose, sending him to the carpet bumping his head. Rightly, his mother was upset, and I took our son to another room and gave him a stern talk. We made him apologize and retreated outside to have the kids play. I was horrified.

I apologized to both parents profusely, but the conversation after dinner often turned to how wild my son is (he loves being around people and is very social and often comes off as too energetic). I feel awful and feel I should keep him away from other kids for the time being. I’m even considering taking him to his doctor to see if he needs some kind of medication to curb his enthusiasm.

I feel we’ve lost our new friends and it is my responsibility to do something more to make this situation better. I’m still mortified days later! How should I have handled this situation? Is my child in need of medication and behavior therapy? How do I approach my neighbors from now on, and should I keep my son from his friend? 

—Neighborhood Nuisance

Dear NN,

Little kids occasionally do naughty things. It’s just part of growing up. And you did what you’re meant to, as the adult: intervened, discussed, apologized. You don’t need to don a hair shirt over so minor a transgression!

I think your neighbors are overreacting slightly. Your son is older than theirs, and you don’t mention whether they have an older sibling in the house, but if they don’t, part of the problem might be their inability to comprehend the difference between a 3-year-old and a 2-year old: bigger, stronger, more independent.

This post-dinner conversation about how your kid is out of control sounds hurtful. But I don’t think you need to lay low or isolate your son unless what your friends said reinforces something you’ve been concerned about for a while. Extroverted, energetic kids don’t all need to be pathologized or medicated, and I certainly wouldn’t rely on other parents for a diagnosis.

You don’t go into detail about what happened with your old neighbors (I suppose “nightmare” says enough), and I bring it up only because I think it explains your particular sensitivity about relations with the folks next door. That said, I don’t think you have lost your new friends. You’ve apologized, and adults agree that after that step, you move on. Invite your neighbors over and try to move past this. Just act like everything’s normal because to hear you tell it, it is.

—Rumaan

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